Treasured reader, make yourself snug and prepare for the short, heartwarming, and intense tale of an uncommon meeting. And please strap yourself in securely, because you do not know where this story is going to bring you.
Content note: Alcoholism, gambling addiction, and violence.
"Bobby, go answer the door."
"Ain't nobody at the door, mama."
"There will be in a minute."
In fact, it took three minutes. The stranger had a slow tread up the driveway, carefully trying to keep the mud off of his black leather shoes.
"Good afternoon, young man. I was wondering if I might use your phone. My car broke down, so I need to find a mechanic."
"You won't find no mechanic working today, mister."
"Oh." The stranger paused.
A voice came from upstairs. "You don't need a mechanic. I could hear you runnin' rich from a mile away. We'll find you a new O2 sensor when Bobby's father gets back with the truck."
The stranger blinked twice before calling back, "I am most grateful, ma'am. Would it trouble you if I wait inside?"
Ruby Jo covered the phone's mouthpiece. "It's break time, but Gene says he ain't been to the bar today. He might not get here 'til the cows come home, for all I know. Hey, what's so interesting about the window?" She turned from Sandeep to address the handset. "Thanks, Gene. You let me know if y'all see his pickup, all right? Well, I know you're busy, so goodbye."
"Oh, I saw movement in the field, but it was just the wind."
"Yep, it's nobody working at high noon."
Sandeep put a hand on the window. "See how warm the glass is? Your air conditioner is the right size for this room, but it can't keep up with this heat. If you get some double paned, argon-filled windows, they'll cut your electric bill in half."
"Bless your heart, you think we have money for new windows?"
"They'll pay for themselves eventually, but if you can't afford them, let's see. I can hook you up with someone who can get you on a payment plan. Your electric savings can go toward the windows, until they're paid off. And your house will be cooler."
"If you've a mind to, that'd be a fine blessing. Maybe my quilting club will start coming over in summer." Ruby Jo smiled briefly, then grimaced. "I ought to check them liquor bottles. Today might just be the day he's flipped the tractor over on himself."
"While you check, I'll see when they can send someone by for an estimate. If that's okay with you." Sandeep spent a few moments with a sad, strained expression. Then he sighed, lifted a finger, turned toward the doorway, and opened his mouth. But Ruby Jo was already gone.
Ruby Jo inclined her head as she took the new, used O2 sensor. "Thanks again, Rosie. I owe you."
"You don't owe me nothing, honey." Rosie smiled from the driver's seat: A combination of friendly warmth, self-satisfaction, and generous pity. "It wasn't doing us any good in the barn. The old Ford sure didn't need it no more. See you at quilting."
Sandeep stood next to Ruby Jo as they watched Rosie's car avoid the ruts. "Does she hang around the house like that, or did she dress up just to honk at your house and not come in?"
Ruby Jo gave a snort and started up the driveway. "Hush, you. She likes being pretty as a peach and showing her dresses. Reckon I would too, if I had dresses like that. She's a good sort; don't you think otherwise."
Sandeep walked next to her and nodded. "I believe you. I just thought it was odd."
Ruby Jo skirted the edge of a puddle. "Maybe it was odd for you to show up here in a suit. I guess nobody talks about it when men dress up."
Sandeep gave the puddle a wide berth. "Huh. I never thought about that. Point taken." He walked in silence.
Sandeep leaned down to listen, past the jack stand which held the car above Ruby Jo. She grunted, straining at the wrench. "What could you possibly know about it?" Her voice was sharp from effort or from indignation; perhaps both.
Sandeep eyed the dirt road and his suit, then sighed. He gingerly lay down on his side next to the car, facing her. "I'm dealing with something like it. Gambling."
"Gambling." Ruby Jo stopped jerking the wrench to give him an incredulous stare. "And that makes you think you know something about living and dying by the bottle? What it does to him? To us?" She yanked the wrench loose, slid it toward the tool box, and glared at the stuck sensor.
Sandeep looked away and took three breaths. "I... Well... Addictions can have things in common. I used to enjoy gambling. Now I don't, but I still do it. I can't say why." He placed the wrench in the tool box, and faced her. "I waste money I don't have. I could be living comfortably on my commissions, and instead I'm behind on rent in a shithole apartment. I've started talking to a loan shark. Every Friday after work I tell myself not to go to the card room. Every Friday I'm there." He handed her the spray can.
Ruby Jo's eyes had narrowed, but her brows were raised. "You sound like my Randy. Except you don't blame everyone on God's Earth but yourself."
"I tried. But I'd rather hate myself than hate everyone else."
While she mulled this over, Ruby Jo sprayed the rusted joint with orange liquid, filling the air with a volatile and unhealthy scent. "Is that really hatred? Or is it clear headedness? You own your problem, even if you can't control it." She took the hammer that Sandeep passed to her, then flinched as she saw his face. "I meant yet! Ain't controlled it yet. Don't look like that."
Sandeep's face stayed woeful. "No, you were right. Or are you that optimistic about his problem?"
Ruby Jo paused, then shifted her gaze up to the wet joint. She hammered swiftly and loudly: More so than caution dictated. It had the benefit of making conversation impossible.
She finally slid out, and rolled to her knees. "All right. You said it's tough." She got to her feet and started brushing off dirt. "It is. He tells me he knows how to manage his drink. I tell myself I know how to manage him. We're both lying."
"I'm so sorry." At a distant crack, Sandeep suddenly looked around. "Oh, there's that gun again. I heard shots going off a few times while you were hammering. I wonder where they're coming from."
Ruby Jo listened carefully until they heard the report again. "That's no gun. It's a rifle."
"What's the difference?"
"The rifling." She snorted amusedly at Sandeep's dubious expression. "Grooves so the bullet spins and goes straight. Guns don't have them; rifles do. Bobby and the Harris girls like to shoot at cans over yonder. I hope he gets some tips from them, 'cause he sure don't listen to me or his dad."
The pair moved their tools out of the road. Sandeep pointed to a figure sprinting across the field toward the house. "Isn't that Bobby over there?"
"Damn fool's fixing to break his neck, running like that." Ruby Jo started back toward the driveway. "We'll have to wait for your old sensor to loosen up anyway. Might as well go see what's lit a fire under his backside."
Some time later, Sandeep gazed out at the wheat field. "It's just... It's just that I don't feel like I have anything in common with my folks anymore. I don't see the point."
Ruby Jo rolled her eyes. "They've not seen their folks in a long time. That's something y'all have in common." She let Sandeep wonder whether she was just goading him, then continued. "I reckon you ain't let them get to know the real you. If you do, you might could get to know the real them. There's stuff about me my kids won't know 'til they're all out of the house. Move your leg." She threw the harvester into gear.
"Okay, that's fair-"
Sandeep shouted over the squealing blades. "That's fair! But, you know, I'm scared. What if they can't accept me?"
"So you've no mind to see them, or they've no mind to see you. What's the difference?" Ruby Jo squinted ahead. "Or you could give 'em a chance to be okay with you. C'mon, what'll they do? Start being disappointed?"
"Ouch. You win." Sandeep pointed forward. "I think that's the main mass of them."
Ruby Jo made a vaguely obscene noise with her lips. "I already seen them zombies, kid. I ain't that old. You watch my blind spots, and keep 'em from getting in. Remember what I showed you."
Sandeep double checked the safety on the shotgun, looked over the zombie horde near the silo, and swallowed. "Don't worry. We'll get your husband out safely."
"How the dickens are you a salesman — pardon me, sales manager — who can't lie worth a damn? I done told you we're getting him out!" Ruby Jo pushed a clutch and pulled a lever; the harvester and its blades accelerated. "Keep your mouth closed. These windows don't keep out the dust, and I wouldn't count on 'em to keep out the blood."
Ruby Jo heaved herself up from a carpet of flattened wheat stalks. She grunted, and shook her head to clear it. "Sandeep! You okay?"
From across the wide row of razed stems came an answering call. "I think so!" Sandeep stood, glanced at his muddy clothes, then waded from the armpit-high field into the clear strip. They met in the middle.
Ruby Jo gazed ruefully at the harvester as it receded away from them, slowly cutting a wide arc through the wheat field. "What did I ask you to do?"
Sandeep sighed. "Keep them from getting in."
"And what did they do?"
"They got in."
"Yep." Ruby Jo clicked her tongue.
"I'm sorry. Are- Are you mad at me?"
"Nah. Don't pay me no mind. I wouldn't mess with you if I didn't like you. If you ever saw me mad, you wouldn't have to ask."
The zombies, sensing their prey's absence, spilled from inside and atop the harvester.
Sandeep pulled a box from his pocket. "I still have this. I think I landed on it when I rolled out of there." He patted his side and winced.
"Won't amount to a hill of beans unless we get to the silo."
They pushed through the wheat as fast as they could.
Sandeep looked up. "Oh good, there aren't too many of them by the silo." He continued shoving wheat aside.
Ruby Jo chuckled behind him. "Yeah, it's powerful lucky that most of 'em are busy chasing us."
"I don't suppose you'd be so kind" — Sandeep paused to pant — "as to shoot some of them now?"
"I'd be wasting bullets. This little revolver shoots wide. We gotta get right close."
"If that gun sucks, why do I get the shotgun? You're the one who knows how to shoot."
"Reckon you'll see for yourself." Ruby Jo pressed on in silence for a few seconds. "Don't let 'em get between us. Oh, and don't aim any shots near the silo."
"But that's where the zombies are!"
"You ever seen a silo explode?"
"Let's keep it that way."
"No, really. What?!?"
Zombies fell amid the wheat, and the pair stepped over them.
Sandeep thumbed the shotgun's barrel breech lever. "Their house: It just doesn't feels like a home to me." He opened the break-action. "It really never was, even before I moved out."
Ruby Jo sighted along the revolver. "What do you reckon it takes to make a home?" She put a bullet through one zombie's skull. It flopped forward at her feet. She eyed it, but it did not twitch.
Sandeep pulled the barrel down. "They listened to Kishore Kumar all the time. And he's really good: I'm not complaining. But I once copied this awesome Pogues album that a friend played for me. I brought the tape home, and put it on for my parents." He turned the shotgun over and shook it hard. A shell casing fell out of the barrel. "I was so excited to introduce them to Celtic punk. They made me-" His breath caught. "They made me turn it off. Told me I couldn't ever play that 'nonsense' in there."
Ruby Jo aimed two careful shots. "So it's about what music you've a hankering to listen to?" Two zombies fell.
"It's just an example. They're devout Hindus. They made me practice it too." Sandeep fished a new shell from his pocket. "I had to pretend to believe, until I was out of the house. And then every time I came back." He fumbled the shell against the opening in the barrel.
Ruby Jo whirled to face the closest pursuing zombie. "It sounds to me like home is a place where you ain't scared to be yourself." She fired. "My Joanie said something like that when she up and left."
Sandeep slid the shell into the barrel. "Yeah, that sums it up." He pulled the barrel up. The breech clicked shut. "That must have been rough. I'm sorry."
Two more zombies reached them from the front. Ruby Jo sidestepped and fired. One zombie dropped. The other reached for her. She tried to lunge back through the wheat, and her foot connected with a lifeless body. She fell hard, on top of her revolver.
The zombie loomed over her. There was a thunderous boom. It collapsed limply beside her.
Sandeep reached out a hand and helped her up. "Are you okay?"
Ruby Jo barely heard, but flexed her right fingers. "I think so."
The pair pushed forward toward the silo, and Sandeep swatted the shotgun's breech lever. "This thing is slow as hell."
"Yep. If you want to get me a pump-action for my birthday, I won't say no."
"Oh good. I hate trying to come up with gift ideas." Sandeep pulled the barrel down. "Hey, what did you tell me not to do?"
Ruby Jo pressed a bullet into the cylinder. "What? Oh. Don't let them get between us."
Sandeep spun the shotgun over. "And what did they do?"
"They got between us." Ruby Jo slid another bullet in. "Right, you couldn't fire 'til I fell. Liketa got us killed, jumping where I did."
Sandeep shook the barrel and grimaced. The shell casing fell out. He massaged his shoulder. "It's okay, we'll get the hang of this."
They neared the silo.
Sandeep peered across the clearing. "Well, that's a lot of dead zombies."
Ruby Jo smirked. "If there was ten rifle shots like you heard, then there's ten dead zombies."
Sandeep raised his eyebrows. "He's that good, huh?" Free of the wheat, they broke into a run, zombies in shambling pursuit.
Ruby Jo panted. "You just get that box to him, and we'll be golden."
Sandeep scanned the area as he ran. One wooden silo: Tall, wide, and rickety. One adjacent shack at the front. Vines up to the roof. A wooden ladder that barely reached a built-in steel ladder. Atop that, a tiny platform at a hatch in the roof.
And a figure ducking out of the hatch, onto the platform.
The figure sat, his legs dangling over the edge, and waved. "Well, I'll be! If it ain't the cavalry!"
Ruby Jo waved back. "Hang in there, Randy!" She glanced back at the zombies. "We'll be up in a jiffy!"
Sandeep pointed and screamed. "Run faster!" A crowd of zombies lunged into view around the silo, homing in on the noise.
The pair raced toward the ladder.
More zombies appeared from the other side of the silo.
Ruby Jo cursed. "You go up first! You got the box. I might not make it."
Sandeep glanced back. "You have to get up there! We're hemmed in!" He squinted ahead. "What's that banging sound?"
"The silo room!"
The horror in Ruby Jo's voice chilled Sandeep. "Is that-"
The shack's door burst open. Several zombies stumbled out directly in front of the silo, and toppled the wooden ladder.
Sandeep and Ruby Jo skidded to a halt. They surveyed the zombies closing in from all sides.
Ruby Jo struggled to control her breathing. "The ladder. It was our last hope."
Sandeep looked away sharply, as though the despair in her eyes was breaking his heart. "No. No, we can't give up. We're not dead yet."
He took the box from his pocket. Through the hard acrylic, the brass of a hundred rifle bullets gleamed in the sun. He took a deep breath and lifted his eyes. "Randy! Catch!"
Sandeep wound up, like every pitcher he had seen on TV. He hurled the box up toward the silo's platform.
Randy, seated next to his rifle, stretched his arms out to receive it.
The box went three yards wide and burst open against the dome.
Sandeep watched the strewn bullets clatter harmlessly around the zombies.
"Now we're dead."
Ruby Jo readied her revolver. "Well, that was still a right good throw." She patted her pockets. "There's more zombies than Carter's got little pills, and I'm low on bullets. Reckon this is where we make our last stand?"
Sandeep peered distractedly away. "Nah, I reckon not. How about there?" He pointed back to the wheat field.
Ruby Jo's eyes widened. "Well, I declare! Let's do it."
They turned from the silo and charged the zombies.
Treasured reader, please forgive my interruption. This is where a prudent author ends a scene, to let your imagination supply the excitement.
What a rip-off that would be.
They turned from the silo and charged the zombies.
Sandeep braced the shotgun and aimed at a cluster of three to his right. He pressed the trigger. The blast spread did not drop them, but all three rocked and stumbled.
Ruby Jo shot down two zombies to her left. She jogged forward at a measured pace, keeping the fallen zombies between her and the farther ones. Soon, zombies started tripping over their fallen compatriots.
The pair proceeded doggedly forward. Sandeep grabbed the muzzle end and swung the shotgun like a baseball bat. The stock caved in the nearest zombie's temple.
Ruby Jo saw Sandeep overbalance. She lunged to steady him with her left hand. Her right hand flashed past him and gunned down the zombie that had tried to take his back.
With a grimacing cry, Sandeep dropped the shotgun. "Ow! Hot!" He cursed and brought his fist up under the chin of the next zombie. It stumbled backward.
Ruby Jo shot out the left knee of the zombie in front of her. It fell against the off-balance zombie in front of Sandeep. They tumbled down together.
Sandeep stomped the face-down zombie deeper into the mud. He dropped to all fours, with a knee in its back, to retrieve the shotgun. The fallen zombie next to him grabbed his leg.
Ruby Jo's last bullet took out one of a pair of zombies. The other stepped between her and Sandeep. "Stay down!" She gave the zombie a shove. It tumbled backward over Sandeep and landed on the one that held him. Its grip loosened, and he yanked his leg free.
She helped him up and glanced distastefully at the tripped zombie. "I hated people who did that at school."
The pair were through the circle of zombies, and had delayed the reinforcements just enough. They ran.
"Hey! Zombies! Over here!" Sandeep waved with both arms.
Ruby Jo snorted. "They know where we are."
"I just want to make sure." Sandeep rubbed the back of his hand. "Ah, my knuckles are killing me."
"You punched a zombie, God love you."
"I took boxing in college!"
"Boxing? The kind with gloves?"
Sandeep smirked. "Yeah, shut up. Do you think we can hold them off for half a minute?"
Ruby Jo hefted the shotgun. "Heh. We might could. I'm worn slap out, but we can move easier here than in the wheat."
The swarm of zombies began to enter the freshly razed strip of field. Sandeep stretched his neck with a head rolling motion. A distant grinding and squealing noise grew louder.
Ruby Jo took aim at the nearest zombie. "When did you figure the harvester was running around in circles?"
Sandeep and Ruby Jo broke away from the fight, and flung themselves out of the way of the harvester's blades. Gasping for breath, they turned away, and if they did not have to witness the grisly carnage, then neither, treasured reader, do you. Ruby Jo finished off a few zombies who had not been dismembered quite enough, and then the pair set off, at their slowest pace, back toward the silo.
Ruby Jo frowned. "Sandeep? Why are you limping? Is your leg okay?"
Sandeep groaned. "My none of me is okay." He sat in the mud, rolled up a pant leg, and peered at his ankle. "Is that a bite?" The color drained from his face. He looked up at her with pleading eyes. "I've been bitten. I'm going to die and become a zombie!"
Ruby Jo rolled her eyes and gestured around. "Sandeep. Look at these zombies. Actually look at them. Do they look like they got bit yesterday?"
"Um... No, they look old. Rotten. Like they've been dead a long time."
"Yeah. I think the freshest one we saw was Mr. Ferguson who used to teach Sunday school."
Sandeep lowered his head. "I'm sorry."
"Pfft. I was sorry when he died of heart disease, because I figured I'd never get payback on him." Sandeep's eyes widened but he stayed silent, so Ruby Jo continued. "This ain't a proper zombie plague like the last one. These are Voodoo zombies, I'd wager."
Sandeep gave her an incredulous stare. "Wait, just because there's necromancy, it has to be Voodoo?"
Ruby Jo shrugged. "Fine, maybe it was the Episcopalians. Point is, you ain't dying. We'll get that bite cleaned out at the house. Maybe go see a doctor when you get back to the city."
Sandeep blinked, and slowly grew a wide-eyed, manic smile. "Heh. Heh! I'm not dying! Yes! I'm going to call my parents."
"No, it'll be a disaster. But I'm calling them anyway."
Ruby Jo chuckled. "Okay, let's go get Randy down."
Randy glanced into the kitchen, making sure no children were present. "Now hold your horses! I wasn't getting drunk; them zombies had me pinned there!"
Ruby Jo sighed. "When you didn't turn up, the first thing I checked was the bar, and the second was the liquor bottles. Are you telling me that was wrong? Can you look me in the eye and say something else done kept you out more than drinking?"
Randy gestured toward Sandeep, who stood beside her despite his obvious discomfort. "Dang it Ruby Jo, why are y'all bringing this up in front of him? Ain't I entitled to keep my own secrets?"
Ruby Jo tilted her head and raised an incredulous eyebrow. "Darling, I have a Molly Hatchet tape that I keep hidden, and I listen to it when nobody's around. That secret ain't hurting no one. Keeping your problem a secret: All it does is let you go on hurting yourself and us. No more. What are we going to do about it?"
Randy stared at the ground, thinking hard. Finally, his eyes pleading, he raised them to her. "Molly Hatchet?!?"
"Doggone it, Randy! I'm serious."
"I know, buttercup. I'll give up the drinking. I promise."
"Like the last three times?"
Randy lifted his palms. "What else can I do?"
Ruby Jo took a deep breath. "You're better behaved when other people are watching. Like now. You ain't never been able to talk to me about this before without a conniption. So here's what we're gonna do. You quit, starting now. We give the liquor to whichever folks will enjoy it the most. You tell Gene that you have a problem. Tell him if you ever order a beer from him again, he's to call me. As for the liquor store, I'll tell Frank that there's a name I've never mentioned to Sarah, out of respect for their marriage. If he sells you another drop of whiskey while you're on the wagon, well, that'd be mighty disrespectful." Randy started to interject, but Ruby Jo steamrolled over him. "You take up a hobby, guitar or fishing or something, and any time you want to drink, you do that instead. Your friend Jimmy quit drinking last year. Ask him for advice. And I'm going to let slip at quilting club that you had a drinking problem, but you quit, and you're already starting to do better, but it's been really hard for you, so please don't mention it to anyone. If the creek don't rise, by Saturday the whole town'll be watching out for you, not offering drinks, but waiting to see if you slip up so they can talk about it at church."
Randy stared for several seconds. His face shifted from stun to slow realization. "You didn't come up with all that just now, did you?"
Ruby Jo shook her head, her lips tight.
Randy sighed. "You've been thinking about this for a while. It's been hurting you a long time."
She sniffled, pressed her lips harder, and nodded, blinking.
Randy looked from Ruby Jo's single tear to the ceiling, and closed his eyes. "What if I can't do it?"
Ruby Jo's voice wavered, but her tone was firm. "Then I can't stay."
"Heavens to Betsy, Ruby Jo! You can't leave!" Randy lowered his raised voice. "We've still got the kids. And I don't know what I'd do without you."
"Can't never could, Randy. If I can't leave and I can't stay, I'll just have to find something I can do."
"Buttercup, this is your home! You ain't got no other place."
Sandeep interjected, his eyes fixed on Randy. "My friend Rachel has a spare room. She won't charge anyone rent until they get on their feet."
Ruby Jo nodded. "That'll do nicely, thanks. Randy, the kids take care of you, not the other way around. They'll be okay, until they decide to leave like Joanie did. And if they do, I'll help them."
Randy stared at Sandeep in astonishment, as though the man who had just helped to save his life were now killing him. He dropped his eyes to the floor.
Ruby Jo gave him a few seconds to think. "So what'll it be? Watch everyone in your life leave you one by one? Or let us all help you quit?"
Randy squeezed his eyes shut. He stood, grimacing and occasionally shaking his head. Eventually, a tear ran along his nose. He wiped it and opened his eyes. "I'm sorry, Ruby Jo. I don't know how to talk about it, how to ask for help. Can- Can you help me? You can tell-" He choked. "You can tell the club if you have to."
Sandeep lay on his side, heedless of the dirt, and passed tools to Ruby Jo. After some percussive maintenance and torque, the O2 sensor squeaked loose.
Ruby Jo's voice echoed from under the car. "Oh, don't think nothing of it. I should thank you! Not for helping me get Randy out, I mean thanks for that too, that was mighty big. But I mean thank you for being there just now. He never would have agreed if he didn't know you was watching. He would have fought me like an ornery son of a bitch. Again."
Sandeep rolled onto his back and looked up at the sky. "I think a lot of guys wouldn't have backed down even then." He studied the clouds for a minute. "I think some guys are good, and some guys are good when people are watching. Sometimes, when things get too hard, a man can forget himself, and slip from one to the other. I hope Randy gets enough practice to slip back the other way." He turned back to her. "If he doesn't, well, let me know, and we'll get you a place. Don't ever feel like you're trapped here."
Ruby Jo started twisting the new sensor into its socket. "Thanks. You know, your friend Rachel must be tender-hearted, to be willing to take in strangers. You better treat her right."
"I don't have a friend Rachel."
Ruby Jo rolled over, stared at Sandeep, and burst out laughing. "So you can lie! And here I was worried about you."
Sandeep grinned sheepishly. "Well, I can lie to Randy."
"But you can't lie to me? Heh." She rolled back toward the sensor. "I've not gotten a compliment like that in a long time." She continued working. Within a few minutes, a cable was snug to the sensor, and the the jack stands lay on the grass.
Sandeep climbed in and started the car. The engine purred. He rolled down the window. "That did it! Thank you so much! I can go home!"
Ruby Jo squatted by the window. "Good. I reckon you have a lot to do. Have a safe ride."
"I will, thanks. I'm sure you have stuff do, too." He paused. "When is that quilting club of yours?"
She cocked her head. "Every Friday evening."
"Fridays." The word was barely more than a whisper. Sandeep looked at the road ahead. He closed his eyes for two slow breaths, then relaxed his grip on the steering wheel and turned back to Ruby Jo. "Do you have room for a beginner?"
© 2021 by Joseph Levy.